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Why is the Tumen River one of the most dangerous places on earth?



  • June 12, 2021
Sam Campbell
Sam Campbell

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The Tumen River, which separates North Korea from China, is considered one of the most dangerous rivers in the world to cross.

It’s not that the river is particularly deep, wide, or treacherous. In fact, if you stand on the North Korean bank, you can look across the water and see China nearly a stone’s throw away. It seems like such an easy river to cross, especially at some of its shallower points.

But nothing about the Tumen River is easy. It’s one of the most heavily guarded places on earth. Soldiers have order to “shoot to kill” anyone trying to cross without permission.

Still, many people attempt the dangerous crossing every year to escape an even more dangerous life in North Korea — one where families often starve to death and Christians can be thrown in jail simply for owning a Bible.

A few North Koreans like Min Jun, whom you’ll read about below, have successfully made it across the Tumen’s frigid waters. But others are still struggling to survive inside this isolated country … and they desperately need your help.

Why is the Tumen River so dangerous?

The 324-mile-long Tumen River cuts through mountains and valleys between North Korea, China, and Russia, where it eventually dumps into the Sea of Japan.

During the day, it’s not uncommon for people to gather at the river to wash clothes and vegetables or even bathe. A shell of ice freezes over the water in the winter months, but North Koreans simply chunk out a hole and continue with their daily tasks.

But that’s during daylight. As night falls, the Tumen River becomes an escape route.

Unfortunately, the North Korean government is well aware of defectors, and they’ve taken extra precautions to prevent them from leaving. Barbed wire fences line much of the Tumen River. Watchtowers are hidden in the nearby hills. And armed soldiers stand ready to kill.

Tensions have grown even higher over the past year. In an attempt to control the spread of the coronavirus, North Korean guards are ordered to “shoot on sight” anyone who tries to cross the border — no questions asked.

For North Koreans living on the edge of the river, freedom seems so close … yet so far away.

Why do people try to cross?

Perhaps it seems strange that people would risk crossing the Tumen River at all. But remember, every day is a living nightmare for many in North Korea, especially Christians. Owning a Bible is illegal, and just mentioning the name of Jesus could land a believer in prison … or worse.

But religious persecution isn’t the only threat. Families are starving, too. Even Kim Jong-un admitted North Korea is experiencing another famine similar to the one that took place in the ’90s and killed millions of people.

It’s no wonder why so many are desperate to escape.

Min Jun is one of the few who have successfully escaped the horrors of North Korea, so we’ve changed his name to protect his identity.

Before Min Jun found Christ, he was serving in the North Korean military when his parents called him back to their village. He rushed home and found his family extremely thin and malnourished. They had no food and were on the verge of starving to death.

They needed to at least try to escape.

They knew they might die from a bullet as they swam through icy waters … but they also knew they would definitely die if they stayed.

Min Jun’s terrifying journey

The day Min Jun and his family crossed the Tumen River, the water seemed extra cold. It stung their skin, and the farther they got away from North Korea, the more fearful they became.

At any moment they could be shot. Even if they made it into China, they could be caught, sent back, and executed.

Then they heard them — the North Korean guards shouting to one another that they had spotted someone in the dark water.

As Min Jun slogged through the river, he found himself crying out to a God he had only ever heard about once. He prayed, “God, if You’re real, help us survive this!”

God answered those prayers, and his entire family escaped across the river into China.

When Min Jun’s family reached their final destination, they found more than a warm meal and safety. A group of church planters met Min Jun and told him about the Gospel. Min Jun knew it was only because of God that he was alive, and he accepted Christ as his Savior.

“Many people cross the river for food, and they hear the Gospel and go back home,” one of our North Korea partners said.

After surviving one terrifying journey, they’re willing to turn around and risk another one because they feel like they have to share what they’ve learned with their family and friends.

Slowly, the North Korean underground church is growing. The only problem is that these secret believers are still starving, and most don’t have Bibles to bring them comfort as they face persecution and a deadly famine.

How you can help

Right now, North Korean Christians are going to bed hungry each night. They’re trying to grow in their faith without a Bible of their own. Some are contemplating whether or not they should try crossing the Tumen River.

You can help by meeting both their physical and spiritual needs.

Your $20 gift today will provide one starving North Korean believer with a week’s worth of food plus his very own Bible. Not only will you help sustain his physical strength … but you will also provide him with the comfort that can only come from the Scriptures.

And your impact won’t stop there.

Since believers often share their Bibles with trusted friends and family, each copy you send will likely reach around five people!

Crossing the Tumen River is a dangerous — and deadly — decision. Give a believer another choice by providing him with lifesaving food and a Bible today.

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